Smoked Turkey Brine
Smoked Turkey Brine

With a soak in this earthy and citrusy brine, your smoked turkey will have the spiciness it needs to defend the dinner table.

In this recipe

  • What is turkey brine?
  • How does brining work?
  • Is sugar needed in the brine?
  • The best turkey for salting
  • Turkey is in charge
  • Air-dried turkey in brine for crispy skin
  • Tips for Turkey Success
  • Smoked Turkey Salt Variations
  • How to plan ahead
  • Up your brine game with these brine recipes

Roasting a turkey can be an exhilarating and daunting affair. Putting the turkey on the grill or smoker can add to the anxiety. It’s a lot of meat to feed a lot of people, and it’s something we don’t want to screw up.

Luckily we have science and salt to help us avoid that awful dry turkey. While cooking to the correct final temperature of 165°F can help avoid a turkey disaster, remember that brining the turkey is an added flavor safety net. Even though the brine’s mission is moisture, it can also add some flavor with the help of friends.

What is turkey brine?

Not just turkey brine, but any brine is a saltwater solution consisting of 1 cup of salt per 1 gallon of water. If you need to scale the amount, it’s 1 part salt to 20 parts water.

I use Morton Kosher Salt which has large crystals. Table salt requires a smaller measurement. Also, not all kosher salt is the same size. To ensure accuracy, weigh your salt. 1 cup of kosher salt weighs 225 grams.

How does brining work?

As the turkey soaks, the salt penetrates the protein cells of the turkey. While salt draws moisture from the meat, it also increases the size of the turkey’s protein molecules, allowing it to hold more liquid, resulting in a plumper turkey.

The increased moisture capacity not only helps the lean turkey breast stay moist during cooking, but can also add flavor to the poultry. There’s so much to win here I can’t contain myself!

Is sugar needed in the brine?

Whether your turkey is roasted, fried, or smoked, this brine delivers plump, juicy meat.

However, since this is for a smoked turkey, I left out the sugar, which is often added to sheets to help brown the skin. Here, the smoking process naturally colors a turkey’s skin a beautiful deep mahogany.

If you’re considering this brine for a more familiar cooking method, consider adding 1/2 cup of sugar to aid in the browning process. The only thing better than succulent turkey is dark, crispy skin, which is why I love blowing smoke in the backyard on Thanksgiving.

The best turkey for salting

When choosing a turkey, avoid labels that indicate it has already been injected with brine. If you salt these, they will become too salty. You can just smoke these as is.

Curing turkey takes time and effort. If you can try to find a natural and fresh free-range turkey that hasn’t been pickled in brine, you’ll get the best result.

If you’re using a frozen turkey, it doesn’t need to be completely thawed before brining. When the turkey is partially thawed, it can be added directly to the brine. If the turkey is mostly frozen, return the turkey to the brine for an additional day to ensure the meat is fully thawed to absorb the brine.

Turkey is in charge

The size of the turkey determines everything: the amount of brine liquid, the size of the brine tank, and where the turkey is chilled during brine.

  • The right turkey: I tend to smoke turkeys that weigh 12 to 18 pounds and I use a covered 4 1/2 gallon plastic container to cure it. Any container will work, as long as it can completely submerge the turkey in the brine. Use a plate or bowl to keep the bird submerged as it swims to the top.
  • The amount of brine liquid: To find out how much brine you need, place the turkey in your container of choice and fill it with water until it’s completely submerged. Then remove the turkey and measure the remaining water.
  • Where to chill the turkey: I have room in the fridge for my turkey. However, if you plan to smoke the biggest turkey on the block, firstly, congratulations, and secondly, consider using an insulated cooler. Use sealed ice packs to keep the turkey cold, then store the cooler in a cool part of your home and check the ice once a day. If you live in a colder climate, consider putting the cooler in nature’s freezer, your backyard.

Air-dried turkey in brine for crispy skin

Once the turkey is done salting, remove it from the brine and set it uncovered on a wire rack over a baking sheet in the refrigerator. This helps the salt absorbed by the turkey spread evenly throughout the meat and helps dry the skin so it will crisp up later in the smoker.

Tips for Turkey Success

Consider this when salting your turkey:

  • Cleanliness is key. Turkeys are big, and gallons of turkey-soaked water can cause a salmonella mess. To make cleaning easier, I place the salt container with the turkey in the sink, then remove the turkey to a nearby sheet pan. Turkeys can’t fly, and I don’t help anyone fly around my kitchen dripping salt water. When you’re done, be sure to thoroughly clean the containers and surfaces before and after the curing process.
  • Be sure to cool the brine completely before adding the turkey. Bring the ingredients to a boil in half the amount of water you need for the brine. Then add the remaining water in the form of ice to quickly cool the brine.
  • The size of your turkey and pickle tank will determine the amount of brine you need. Plan and scale the recipe carefully to ensure the turkey is fully submerged. For anything larger than 20 pounds, plan to double the amount of brine, especially if your brine tank is wider than it is tall.

Smoked Turkey Salt Variations

Sheets are open to a variety of tastes. While I landed on parsley, don’t be afraid to mix your own flavors. The salt and water are crucial for adding moisture; The flavor combination can be expanded with your imagination. Here are a few ideas:

  • Orange + fennel + thyme + sage
  • Lime + cilantro + chili peppers
  • lemon + thyme + garlic

If you want to test your flavor combinations before committing to salting a whole turkey, do a test batch. Soak chicken breasts in brine and grill. Add an uncured chicken breast to the grill for fun just to see the difference a brine can make.

How to plan ahead

Planning to cook a turkey is a process in itself. Adding a brine pushes the planning even further.

  • For smaller turkeys (under 20 pounds), plan for 24-hour brine.
  • For a larger turkey, allow at least 24 hours, but up to 48 hours.
  • For any size turkey, allow an additional 24 hours to rest the brine turkey, uncovered, in the refrigerator. This helps refresh the skin. You can read all about our tests in our article “Crispy, golden turkey skin: 4 methods tested with a winner!”

Up your brine game with these brine recipes

  • Brine pork chips with gremolata
  • Easiest turkey brine
  • Fried chicken in feta sauce
  • Grilled pork chops in citrus brine
  • How to grill juicy, boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Smoked turkey brine

preparation time
2 hours

brine and dry season
48 hours

total time
50 hrs

up to 18 servings

1 batch of turkey brine

I use 1 cup Kosher Morton Salt, but since the size of the grains of salt varies from brand to brand, weigh the salt out – you need 225 grams of kosher salt for 1 gallon of water.


  • 1 gallon waterdivided

  • 1 cup (225G) kosher salt

  • 1 bunch Italian parsleyabout 15 stems

  • 1 yellow Onioncut

  • 1 head garlichalve crosswise

  • 2 orangeshalved

  • 1/4 Cup Black peppercornscrushed with a heavy skillet or pulsed in a spice grinder

  • 1 (12– up to 18-lb) all TurkeyRemoved neck, innards, heart and liver


  1. Make the brine:

    In a large saucepan, combine 1/2 gallon (about 9 1/2 cups) water, salt, parsley, onion, garlic, oranges, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir until the salt has dissolved.

  2. Cool the brine:

    Add 1/2 gallon (9 1/2 cups) of cold water to the hot brine to cool it faster. You can also replace the water with ice so it cools even faster.

    Cool the brine to room temperature. Then refrigerate until cool.

  3. Salt the turkey:

    In a 4 1/2 gallon container, add the turkey and cover with the chilled brine.

    Refrigerate for 24 hours.

  4. Prepare to dry:

    Set a wire rack over a baking sheet.

  5. To remove the turkey from the brine:

    Remove the turkey from the brine and place on the prepared baking sheet. Using a paper towel, remove any remaining salt and salt from the turkey. Pat the turkey dry.

  6. Dry turkey:

    Place uncovered in the refrigerator and allow to air dry for 24 hours. This will help crisp up the skin as you cook the turkey.

  7. Cook Turkey:

    Once a turkey is pickled in brine and air dried, you can use whatever cooking method you prefer to either roast, smoke, or roast the turkey.

nutritional information (per serving)
482 calories
17g Fat
13g carbohydrates
66g protein
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